O’Brien: Payton clinches third consecutive conference title

SHARE O’Brien: Payton clinches third consecutive conference title
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Payton’s Eli Geleerd (15) weaves through Uplift’s players. Worsom Robinson/ For Sun-Times

Payton junior Eli Geleerd is listed as a wide receiver and linebacker on the Grizzlies’ roster. He’s a starter at both positions, which means a ton of time on the field. But for Payton to win a third consecutive Illini Heartland conference title on Saturday at Winnemac, much more was required of him.

The Grizzlies were without their two leading rushers. Senior Myles Davis is injured, he was on the sideline in street clothes. Junior Salaar Pourkhalili left the game with an injury after just four carries.

Geleerd stepped in at running back and wildcat quarterback. He and quarterback Zach Wang picked up a pair of first downs in the final minute to keep the ball away from Uplift and close out a 21-14 victory.

“I like running the ball, it’s something new, something fun,” Geleerd said. “That last drive I just had to hang on to the ball to make sure they didn’t get another chance. It’s a little tricky, you know you have to try and run out the clock as much as possible but also try and get the first down.”

Geleerd had seven receptions for 69 yards, including a one-yard and a 23-yard touchdown. He had 10 carries for 31 yards. And he was a major force on defense, with three key sacks on Tony Walton, Uplift’s dynamic quarterback.

“I knew they were going to roll out and [Walton] was going to try and run the ball outside so I had to contain and see what I could do,” Geleerd said. “I got lucky a few times and was able to tackle him, he was rolling out to his right side a lot.”

Payton (7-1, 5-0) led 21-6 at the half and after three quarters. The Titans’ running gave got into a groove midway through the fourth quarter and began charging down the field. Tyrece Barnes scored on a 13-yard run with 4:14 to play to pull Uplift (5-3, 3-2) within seven points.

Thanks to Geleerd and Wang the Titans never had another shot.

“The offensive line was huge, especially on that last drive,” Payton coach George Klupchak said. “When you are trying to run inside plays with your quarterback and a wide receiver as your backfield and you can pick up yards that’s a huge credit to the offensive line.”

Wang was 13-for-20 for 92 yards and two touchdowns. He completed his first nine passes.

Walton was most of the offense for Uplift. He had 11 carries for 119 yards and was 4-for-16 passing for 51 yards. He’s an explosive player.

“[Walton] is just phenomenal,” Klupchak said. “He’s tough to tackle, can make plays with his legs and his arms. Anytime you have something like that you have to prepare for it. We had some guys that made some big plays in the backfield today.”

Penalties and dropped passes doomed the Titans. Still, they have made considerable progress from last season’s 4-5 record. Coach Jason Yolich only has 19 players, so fatigue was a major factor.

Conference championships have become routine for the Grizzlies, but the program has never won a state playoff game.

“That’s the top goal this season, to win a playoff game,” Geleerd said. “But to go three in a row with the conference championships really means something to us.”

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